Harry Farr

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Harry Farr
Born 1891
London, England
Died 18 October 1916 (aged 25)
Carnoy, France
Allegiance  United Kingdom
Service/branch Flag of the British Army.svg British Army
Battles/wars First World War

Private Harry Farr (1891– 18 October 1916) was a British soldier who was executed during World War I for cowardice at the age of 25. He came from Kensington in London and was serving in the 1st Battalion, the West Yorkshire Regiment. He was pardoned in 2006.


Harry Farr was born in 1891. He joined the British Army on 8 May 1908, enlisting at Hursely Park. He deployed with the 2nd Battalion of his regiment as part of the British Expeditionary Force in 1914 and fought in the trenches on the Western Front.[1] His position was repeatedly shelled, and in May 1915 he collapsed with strong convulsions. His wife Gertrude recalled that while he was in hospital,

He shook all the time. He couldn't stand the noise of the guns. We got a letter from him, but it was in a stranger's handwriting. He could write perfectly well, but couldn't hold the pen because his hand was shaking.[2]

It is now thought by professionals that Farr was possibly suffering from hyperacusis, which occurs when the olivocochlear bundle in the inner ear is damaged, causing it to lose its ability to soften and filter sound, making loud noises physically unbearable (auditory efferent dysfunction).[citation needed] Despite this, Farr was discharged from hospital and sent back to the front with the 1st Battalion, where he fought in the Battle of the Somme. Farr reported himself to the medical station several times over the following months.[1] In April 1916, he was kept at the medical station for a fortnight due to his state. On 22 July he spent the night at a medical station and was discharged for duty the following morning. On 17 September, he again attempted to seek the help of a medical orderly, but was refused as he was not physically wounded and the aid station was dealing with a high number of battle casualties.[2]

Farr reported for duty at the transport lines at 8pm that evening, but went missing shortly afterwards. Upon being found at 11pm, he refused to return to the front line.[1] He was subsequently arrested for disobeying orders and on 1 October Farr was subjected to a court martial at Ville-sur-Ancre. Farr had to defend himself. He was tried under an accusation of 'misbehaving before the enemy in such a manner as to show cowardice'. The court martial, presided over by Lieutenant-Colonel Frederick Spring, lasted only twenty minutes and questions have subsequently been raised about its competence.[3] Spring found Farr guilty and recommended a sentence of death by firing squad.[1] General Sir Douglas Haig signed his death warrant and he was shot at 6.00am on 18 October 1916 near Carnoy.[1] His family have always argued that he was suffering from shell shock at the time.


Harry Farr's wife, Gertrude, then living in Kensington, London, was first told her husband had been killed in action, but later when her pension was stopped, she was informed he had been shot for cowardice and she was not entitled to receive a war widow's pension. In 1992, Gertrude and her family discovered that some documents were being released by the government and that Andrew MacKinlay MP was involved in a campaign for justice for those in similar positions to Farr. When they got hold of the court martial papers, they were horrified to discover that Farr had been sent back to the front, when he in fact needed urgent medical treatment.[3]

Despite a sustained campaign, Prime Minister John Major refused a pardon. Gertrude Farr died in 1993.

On 15 August 2006, Harry Farr's family announced that Farr was to be granted a pardon.[4] The announcement came as Des Browne, the Defence Secretary, said that he would seek a statutory group pardon; i.e. one achieved through an Act of Parliament for all those executed regardless of the individual merits of the case. Des Browne told BBC Radio 4's Today programme that, after 90 years, "the evidence just doesn't exist inside the cases individually".[5] It has been suggested that the move would avoid numerous court cases. A group pardon would also exonerate those who had been properly found guilty of cowardice. A historian[who?] said that of cases in the Norfolk Regiment he had examined there was at least one who had a history of desertion. Historians have criticised such a move in the past as trying to apply modern standards retroactively.[6]

The mass pardon of 306 British Empire soldiers executed for certain offences during the Great War was enacted in section 359 of the Armed Forces Act 2006, which came into effect on royal assent on 8 November 2006. This number included three from New Zealand, twenty three from Canada, two from the West Indies, two from Ghana and one each from Sierra Leone, Egypt and Nigeria.[7]

Tom Watson, then Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Ministry of Defence, was instrumental in including this in the Act.[8] He was said to have acted having met the relatives of Private Farr.[9]

However section 359(4) states that the pardon "does not affect any conviction or sentence." Since the nature of a pardon is normally to commute a sentence, Gerald Howarth MP asked during parliamentary debate: "we are entitled to ask what it does do." [10] It would appear to be a symbolic pardon only, and some members of Parliament had called for the convictions to be quashed, although the pardon has still been welcomed by relatives of executed soldiers.[11]

Popular culture[edit]

The UK rock group, Stray included the song, "Harry Farr" on their 2009 album, Valhalla. Singer and songwriter Reg Meuross wrote about the execution of Harry Farr in his song, 'And Jesus Wept.'

The book Shell Shock by Steve Stahl features a character Private Simon Jennings, based on Harry Farr.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e File WO 71/509, The National Archives, Kew, London.
  2. ^ a b British soldiers executed in First World War denied official pardon at www.wsws.org
  3. ^ a b "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 31 August 2006. Retrieved 16 August 2006. 
  4. ^ "WWI soldier to be granted pardon". BBC News. 2006-08-15. Retrieved 2008-08-08. 
  5. ^ "300 WWI soldiers receive pardons". BBC News. 2006-08-16. Retrieved 2008-08-08. 
  6. ^ Wessely S (2006). "The life and death of Private Harry Farr". Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine. 99 (9): 440–3. doi:10.1258/jrsm.99.9.440. PMC 1557889Freely accessible. PMID 16946385. 
  7. ^ "NZ Herald: New Zealand's Latest News, Business, Sport, Weather, Travel, Technology, Entertainment, Politics, Finance, Health, Environment and Science". The New Zealand Herald. 
  8. ^ McDonald, Henry (2007-10-28). "War shame ended by plea of a daughter". The Guardian. London. Retrieved 2010-05-04. 
  9. ^ S.Walker Forgotten Soldiers Gill and MacMillan 2007 ISBN 978-0-7171-4182-1
  10. ^ Hansard, House of Commons, 7 November 2006, col. 772
  11. ^ Hansard, House of Commons, 7 November 2006, col. 768

External links[edit]